by Ren Haijun
WASHINGTON, Sept. 6 (Xinhua) -- The Massachusetts-based Tufts University is investigating a U.S.-China joint research project that was accused of using Chinese children as test subjects in experiments on genetically modified (GM) rice, a spokeswoman said Thursday.
"We are in the process of conducting a thorough review of the protocols followed in this research to ensure that the strictest standards were adhered to," Andrea Grossman, assistant director of public relations at the university, told Xinhua in a written interview.
"It would be inappropriate to speculate further on the matter at this time. Further information will be provided upon completion of our review," she said.
Grossman's response came one week after Greenpeace, an environmental protection organization, alleged that it had discovered a study backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture involving feeding genetically modified Golden Rice to a group of 24 children, aged between six and eight, in central China's Hunan province.
The study, published in the August edition of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, claimed that Golden Rice, genetically engineered to be rich in carotene, is effective at providing vitamin A to children.
The paper's lead author is Tang Guangwen, director of the Carotenoids and Health Laboratory of Tufts University. While Tang insisted that the testing had been approved, both the second and third author -- Hu Yuming with the Hunan Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Yin Shi'an with the China CDC -- denied involvement in the GM rice research project.
The two toed the line of Hunan authorities, which said Sunday that the China CDC had conducted tests on children in the province in 2008, but these tests were meant to study children's bodies transformation of beta carotene in vegetables to vitamin A, and did not include GM food.
"Tufts University is deeply concerned by recent allegations about research conducted in China in 2008. We have always placed the highest importance on human health, and we take all necessary steps to ensure the safety of human research subjects. We have always been and remain committed to the highest ethical standards in research," Grossman said.
"Tufts University also respects laws, regulations and cultures of all countries in which our researchers work or collaborate. China is no exception," the spokeswoman said. "And we have made every effort to adhere to its relevant laws and regulations governing human research, while also being respectful of one of the great and oldest cultures of the world."
According to Grossman, the purpose of the 2008 China trial was to test Golden Rice as part of the solution to a very serious health problem in developing countries -- blindness of a quarter of 1 million children, and the deaths of half of them, caused by vitamin A deficiency.
The staggering impact of vitamin A deficiency has occurred in spite of widespread vitamin supplementation programs. This trial was intended to build on previous research conducted in the United States investigating Golden Rice as a source of vitamin A.
However, GM food is controversial, as there is still no consensus on whether or not it is harmful to the human body.
According to the Greenpeace website, it is simply not known whether genetically engineered crops are safe for human or animal consumption. Independent scientific studies on the matter are severely lacking, it said.
"Children and infants are particularly sensitive to any possible health effects of genetically engineered rice," it added.
The Chinese government introduced a regulation as early as 2001 to ensure the safety of GM food, with strict provisions for researching, testing, producing and marketing such products.
According to the regulation, parties conducting GM agricultural experiments should have certain qualifications and form a panel to be in charge of the safety of the experiments.
It also provides that any GM agricultural experiment involving foreign partners should be approved by the government's agricultural departments.